Kai Wright: I'm Kai Wright in for Tanzina, she's back with you tomorrow. Asian Americans have been the target of racist attacks and violence since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. What we've seen in the past year actually fits into a deep history of anti-Asian violence in the United States.
Here to walk us through some of that history is Beth Lew-Williams, history professor at Princeton University and author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. Beth, thanks for joining us.
Beth Lew-Williams: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: A lot of folks are shocked by the uptick in violence against Asians and Asian-Americans over the past year, but as I said, it really shouldn't come as a surprise given our history. How far back does this kind of violence go?
Beth Lew-Williams: Unfortunately the anti-Asian violence goes back to when immigrants first came to America. First cohort of Asian immigrants were Chinese miners that showed up in 1849 for the gold rush in California. When they arrived, they faced both violence from individuals in the minefields, attacks, and lynchings, but also they faced violence from state officials, from tax collectors, and police. We see, unfortunately, that this was just the beginning of violence against Asian groups.
Kai Wright: What about the violence against Asian American women specifically? That is one of the things that's been really startling in the data we've seen about hate crimes since COVID-19 is how disproportionately women, in particular, have been targeted. Is that part of the history as well?
Beth Lew-Williams: Yes, I think we have to, again, go back really far to understand this, that Asian women have long been hyper-sexualized in sort of the Western imaginary. That goes all the way back to ideas of Orientalism. The Orient was a place of the exotic and that the Orient was seen as this feminine space, a place where women were more submissive and accessible. It feeds into ideas of Western domination.
I think it's also linked to sort of the particular history of Asians' interactions with America. In the 19th century, there was trafficking in Chinese women to America. I think that that trafficking then fed stereotypes that all Asian women were sort of hyper-sexualized in this way.
The other thing that I think is really important to understand is that much of the violence and exploitation of Asian women has happened overseas. America's fought a series of wars in Asia, in the Philippines, in Korea, in Japan, Vietnam. In all of these places where there's been significant military presence, there's also been militarized prostitution. That means that, in fact, America has a long history of exploitation and violence against Asian women in those spaces as well.
Kai Wright: Perhaps to put too fine a point on it, but did you hear any of that when you heard the police officer say that the shooter in the Atlanta area was responding to his "sexual addiction"?
Beth Lew-Williams: Yes, I definitely did. I think that it's disturbing that the police are trying to draw a distinction against that misogyny and anti-Asian racism. These two things can't be taken apart because for women, for Asian and Asian American women, they've always been connected.
Kai Wright: Let's walk through a little bit of the history. Are there patterns that we can discern in terms of when we see these kinds of spikes in anti-Asian sentiment? For example, is it related to economic instability or disease outbreak? Are there any patterns you can point to?
Beth Lew-Williams: Yes, I think that because Asians have often been seen as marginal to American society, they're seen as outsiders. For that reason, they've made easy scapegoats during times of heightened anxiety over many different things. For example, heightened anxiety about economic inequality and unemployment in the 1870s and 1880s meant a large amount of violence against the Chinese. We also see it not just around economics, but previously around disease.
In San Francisco, when there was fears of the bubonic plague in 1900, there was sort of a forcible quarantine of Chinatown and threats of vigilante violence if the Chinese were to leave. This quarantine, I think it's important to note, only involved the Chinese people. White people could still go in and out of Chinatown at the time.
Then I think you also have to link it to things like Japanese confinement during World War II, known as Japanese internment, that there was violence after Pearl Harbor against Japanese in California and in the West. Then this forcible rounding up and moving and confining of Japanese people by the American government. This, I think again, it was a reaction, it was heightened fear in that case to war.
Kai Wright: Why do you think this history is so poorly known? Why do you think we struggle as a culture, Americans, to hold this information?
Beth Lew-Williams: I think it's linked in part to just a lack of recognition of Asian-American history in general, it's not just specific to violence. I also think that this omission is not just about violence, that there's also been an emission of Asian American history in general. I think that that in part reflects the current day status of Asian-Americans that they're still seen as outsiders, as new arrivals in our society and therefore marginalized in our textbooks and in our culture. I think that non-representation matters.
The other thing I would say is that I think a lot of this violence was effective, unfortunately. It did something. When it comes to the 19th century, a lot of that violence pushed people out of communities. I study how groups expelled large numbers of Chinese immigrants out of more than 165 communities across the American West. These expulsions erased that history effectively. This violence is tied to that outsider status.
Kai Wright: Beth Lew-Williams is a history professor at Princeton University and author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. Beth Lew-Williams, thank you so much for this.
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